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As I sit down to write the second part of my series on Zimbabwe, I am struck by the difficulty of the task before me. In the first article, Zimbabwe: The Revolution Continues, I attempted to illustrate the political and economic policies that have made President Mugabe and ZANU-PF the hated enemies of Washington and London. In so doing, I attempted to position myself as a steadfast supporter of the revolution and unabashed enemy of the neoliberal capitalist counterrevolution personified by Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC-T. The juxtaposition between these two opposing forces is critical in determining who is on the side of true independence, and who is on the side of the exploiters with their myriad, multi-colored masks.
However, it is important to note that I am both observer and partisan, analyst and revolutionary. As such, I write from that perspective. I make no pretense, as many so-called journalists seem to be fond of doing, to objectivity: itself a fabrication of self-serving sycophants who aim to justify their corporate-imperialist propaganda by calling it “objective”. In stating this at the outset, it is my desire to speak to those who, like me, support the decades-long revolutionary struggle and who understand that liberation is more than a cosmetic change of government. It is to these fellow revolutionaries and to the people of Zimbabwe that I write these words, hopefully outlining how I can be at once supporter and critic, advocate and counterpoint.
How does one position oneself as a critical supporter without alienating precisely those courageous revolutionaries who continue the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe and throughout the Diaspora? How does one address the inequities and mistakes while simultaneously countering the Western propaganda? These are questions that I cannot sufficiently answer. Rather, I defer to one of the greatest minds of modern civilization to answer for me:
It is clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be…
Nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.
The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions…Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself…
It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.
In short, therefore, we can formulate [our] trend as being: self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires. This is a work for the world and for us. It can be only the work of united forces. It is a matter of a confession, and nothing more. In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are.
– Karl Marx, 1843
Mugabe and the Charge of Genocide
One of the most common attacks on Mugabe and ZANU-PF is the charge of mass killing and genocide. However, in order to examine these charges, they must first be placed into a political context. In doing so, one can begin to formulate a constructive critique rather than resorting to the usual Western propaganda: Mugabe is Hitler in African nationalist’s clothing.
The most often cited example of what is termed “genocide” at the hands of Mugabe is what is known as the Gukurahundi – an operation by Mugabe’s 5th Brigade, which sought to put an end to the domestic insurgency led by supporters of Mugabe’s rival Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe’s detractors, especially those in support of Western puppet Morgan Tsvangirai, are fond of referring to the violence which took place during this period (mid to late 1980s) as genocide and the repression of domestic opposition.
There can be no doubt that there was political motivation in carrying out the operation, however it is dishonest to pretend as if the entire operation were solely an effort by Mugabe to consolidate power. Rather, it must be understood that the offensive by Mugabe’s forces was part of a broader campaign to pacify a region that had been used both as a center for destabilization by the apartheid government of South Africa and as a base of operations of, what we might call today, domestic terrorists.
As Andrew Meldrum of the New York Times reported back in 1987:
Olive Tree and neighboring New Adam Farm, where eight other white Pentecostal missionaries or children died, were the scenes of massacres early Thursday by insurgents opposed to the Zimbabwe Government…The anti-government rebels have operated in the Matabeleland countryside surrounding this city since 1982, generally with violent protests against what they assert is Mugabe’s unfair treatment of the opposition leader Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union and the Ndebele ethnic group supporting it.
This excerpt is telling because, contrary to the popular mythology constructed around this period, it shows that the killings that took place at the hands of the 5th Brigade were part of a larger political and military conflict that had its roots in the struggle for power in Zimbabwe after liberation. Rather than being clear evidence of genocide, reports from the ground at the time indicate that a complex political struggle was taking place, with various interested parties, including the apartheid government of South Africa, becoming involved.
In fact, the same New York Times article notes that, “Western diplomats in the region say the dissidents are believed to be receiving supplies and training from neighboring South Africa. Some weapons have been traced to South Africa, and Radio Truth, a station that supports the dissidents, is beamed into Zimbabwe from South Africa.” Essentially, the Matabeleland region had been made into ground zero of a regional destabilization campaign using political dissidents as proxies. This is, of course, the usual strategy of white imperialists in Africa who have long since used ethnic and tribal divisions to execute their political, economic, and military agendas.
Perhaps the most often cited study into what happened in the Gukurahundi is known as “Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace” conducted by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ). In this study, the authors meticulously document many of the atrocities committed during the conflict. However, it mustn’t be forgotten that the study’s very first paragraph establishes the most important fact of all:
Zimbabwe was a seriously divided country at Independence in 1980. Ten years of war had not only served to liberate Zimbabwe, but had created divisions within it. South Africa was also a hostile neighbour who wanted to weaken Zimbabwe. There were problems between ZIPRA and ZANLA, and outbreaks of violence [that] spilled over, such as at Entumbane in 1981. By early 1982 there were groups of bandits in Matabeleland. Armed men were killing, robbing, and damaging property.
The Government responded by launching a double attack in Matabeleland. The first attack was on the dissidents…The second attack was on ZAPU and its unarmed civilian supporters, mainly in rural areas and at times in the cities…The Government’s attitude was that the two conflicts were one and the same, and that to support ZAPU meant to support dissidents. ZAPU denied it was supporting dissidents. Whatever the truth of this, it is clear that thousands of innocent civilians in Matabeleland were killed or beaten and had their houses burnt during these years, mostly at the hands of Government forces.ii
Many who have written about this period conveniently leave out the political and geopolitical context for the brutal violence in Matabeleland. This is of course because it is much easier, and more beneficial to Western propagandists who seek the destruction of Mugabe and ZANU-PF, to lay all the blame at the feet of Zimbabwe’s government. However, a more nuanced understanding is needed.
It should be noted that, given the chaotic nature of the conflict on the ground, undoubtedly atrocities were committed by both sides. Universally recognized war crimes such as collective punishment – a violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – were committed and those responsible should be held to account. However, to equate the fact that war crimes may have occurred with the idea that only one side was engaged in these crimes, is a gross distortion of the historical record.
As we critically examine these crimes, we should keep in the forefront of our thinking, US-NATO’s imperialist war against Libya, a war waged under the cover of humanitarian intervention. Left liberals were sold the war narrative under the illusion that, were they not to support war, great atrocities and genocide would follow. Naturally, genocide did follow, but it was at the hands of the “freedom fighters” US-NATO supported and equipped. The same narrative is now being sold vis-à-vis Syria where we’re told Assad is Hitler and the opposition are merely “freedom fighters”. How will these stories be told 25 years from now and will the divide between reality and the narrative be as great as that in Zimbabwe?
Mugabe, because of his land redistribution, indigenization and self-sufficiency policies, has become the quintessential villain in the West, representing everything from brutal dictator to genocidal madman. As the demonization continues, one must begin asking the most important question: Do they hate Mugabe because of his crimes, or do they hate Mugabe because he didn’t commit the right crimes?
Zimbabwe and the Plunder of the Congo
Another often cited criticism of Mugabe and ZANU-PF is their participation in the looting and plunder of the mineral resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is a charge that cannot be denied entirely, but must be understood in its larger, geopolitical context.
The ongoing war and consequent genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which have been more or less ongoing since 1996, divided Africa along clear geopolitical lines. The major players involved in the plunder of the natural resources (especially mineral wealth) of DRC were Rwanda and Uganda (led by Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni), both clients of the United States. They, along with their junior partner in Burundi, using smaller proxy forces inside Congo, instigated a bloodbath that continues to this day. It is against this backdrop of US puppets exercising regional hegemony with the American bully on the block supporting them that Zimbabwe entered into the conflict.
Intervening initially on the side of current DRC President Joseph Kabila and against former President Mobutu Sese Seko, Mugabe’s Zimbabwean forces essentially formed part of the core group of military advisors and officers aiding the Congolese in their fight against Rwandan and Ugandan proxy forces. Seen in this way, the involvement of Harare should be understood as neither purely humanitarian nor entirely self-interested. On the one hand, Mugabe genuinely wanted to aid Kabila and prevent the imperialist exploitation of his northern neighbor by the puppets of Western finance capital. On the other hand, Mugabe wanted to ensure that his country, itself struggling through protracted economic difficulty, could secure access to vital resources and wealth, as well as the bargaining power that control of that wealth conferred.
As noted in the United Nations “Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo”:
Zimbabwe has financed its involvement in the conflict in two different ways: (a) by using the defense budget – the bulk of Zimbabwe’s military expenses seem to be covered by the regular budget; (b) by indirect financing of the war through direct payment by some Congolese entities, mainly companies…the Panel has noted a practice [known as] “incentives for assistance” [in which] the former Government of the DRC used the potential of its vast resources in the Katanga and Kasai regions to secure assistance from its allies…Zimbabwean companies and some decision-makers have benefitted most from this scheme.
The involvement of Zimbabwe in the conflict in DRC is not as straightforward as some would have you believe. It’s true that Zimbabwe’s participation in the war was partially to enrich itself and certainly some of the elements within the leadership. This fact is quite clear when one examines the complex series of holding companies, subsidiaries and corporations with whom they were collaborating. Naturally, the enrichment wasn’t purely for the sake of accruing private wealth in the hands of party apparatchiks, but also to fund the ailing economy of Zimbabwe which, by the early part of last decade, was already the victim of a sustained campaign of economic warfare by the imperial Western powers.
However, what is also true about Zimbabwe’s participation in DRC is that, at a basic level, it was a defensive posture. Harare understood from the very beginning that the advances made by Rwandan and Ugandan proxies could represent an existential threat to Zimbabwe as they would be little more than US client regimes. Moreover, there is undoubtedly an element of realpolitik: Mugabe saw collaboration with capitalist financier elements as a necessary evil in order to leverage these relations to the ultimate benefit of Zimbabwe.
It must be noted that this not to apologize for Zimbabwe’s participation in a conflict that has been rightly called the worst holocaust since the Holocaust, the wholesale slaughter of more than six million innocent Congolese in the last 17 years or so. On the contrary, Mugabe and ZANU-PF must called to account for whatever dealings, dirty or otherwise, they have been involved with.
Despite all of this though, one must be careful not to fall into the trap of Western propagandists who make the case that Mugabe was intimately involved the actual genocide in DRC. My critique of that line of thinking would simply be that one must make a distinction between the real perpetrators of the genocide (Rwanda, Uganda, the US, European corporations, et al) and the minor actors such as Zimbabwe which was involved to a much lesser degree and had a real, strategic interest in maintaining stability on its border.
Domestic Repression & the Politics of Intolerance
Perhaps the most common criticism of Mugabe and ZANU-PF is that they have engaged in systematic repression of political opposition dating back to the early 1980s and the struggle for power between Mugabe’s ZANU and Nkomo’s ZAPU factions. Since then, as the political opposition has metamorphosed into the MDC-T of today, so too have the charges of intimidation, forced eviction, torture and more continued.
Leaving aside the conflicts surrounding the fast track land redistribution program, which are far too often cited as examples of Mugabe’s “crimes”, there are other examples that bear close scrutiny. A recent example of a program widely regarded by Western media and their so-called “experts” on Zimbabwe as domestic repression, is the program known as Operation Murambatsvina (OM) which, as Michael Bratton and Eldred Masunungure note was, “A massive ‘urban clean-up’ campaign that was justified as a strategy to eradicate illegal dwellings and eliminate informal trade…Analysts and observers inside and outside the country commented that the crackdown was performed in an indiscriminate manner and with excessive force.”
Such a program is not one that should be justified or apologized for. However, it must be understood in its proper context. When compared to the repression of the landless poor in South Africa, who have had their shacks and other dwellings demolished repeatedly by South Africa’s ruling ANC government, Operation Murambatsvina seems similar by comparison.v While the ANC has managed to maintain a squeaky clean image in the Western media despite the deadly violence visited upon the peaceful strikers at Marikana, Mugabe and ZANU-PF continue to be vilified for actions that, in many ways, pale in comparison. This is not to equate every situation in the two countries, as they are vastly different. Instead, this is merely to indicate the unbridled hypocrisy of the corporate media in the West which seeks to shape the narrative in the interests of finance capital.
Another important criticism that must be addressed is the complete marginalization and repression of the rights of gays and women. After a meeting with UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay in which she publicly stated that Africa required leadership that accepted the rights of women and gays, stated that “When a man says he wants to get married to a man, we in Zimbabwe do not accept it. In most Africa we do not accept it. We can’t talk of women’s rights anymore once we go in that direction.”
This and other anti-gay comments have been much trumpeted in Western media, especially in the so-called Left liberal media, as a means of further demonizing Mugabe. Now, it must be said that I personally find such anti-homosexual views to be antithetical to the spirit of equality and social justice. Therefore I reject such views. However, we must also be careful not to engage in our own form of cultural imperialism. Decisions about cultural norms should be left to the people of that society to decide, not to UN representatives with hands soaked in the blood of Libyan children. Remember that Ms. Pillay made those comments less than a year after being one of the principal players in the manufacturing of consent for the imperialist war on Libya which killed countless women and children. So, let’s not throw stones Ms. Pillay.
Zimbabwe, like the rest of the African continent, is awash in contradictions. While poverty and unemployment continue to plague the country, so too has Zimbabwe become an inspiration: that rare African country which undertook not only a liberation struggle, but a revolutionary struggle to fundamentally remake society. This process has been at times ugly, at times brutal, and often quite painful. It has resulted in civil strife and repression while simultaneously working to build a more equitable society in the shadow of one of the most oppressive, racist, and imperialist colonial projects anywhere in the world.
Anyone arguing that Mugabe is the devil incarnate can be understood to be a dupe of the MDC-T and the Western propaganda machine. Conversely, anyone denying the extreme hardships experienced by the people of Zimbabwe can be understood to be delusional and, in the words of Marx, incapable of “awakening out of his dream about himself.” The people of Zimbabwe have long since awoken out of their dreams of the MDC-T and Western neoliberal capitalism. So too have they awoken from their more than a century of oppression. It is time for the Zimbabwean people to speak…and for the rest of the world to finally listen.
*Editors’ Note: This article is the second in a three-part series of articles examining the political and economic landscape of Zimbabwe as elections approach. Look for the final installment of the series in the July issue of CounterPunch.
Eric Draitser is the founder of StopImperialism.com. He is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.